Author: Friedrich Schiller
First published: 1804 as Wilhelm Tell (English translation, 1841)
Time: Fifteenth century
William (Wilhelm) Tell, a renowned hunter of the Canton of Uri. Tell, a pacifist, avenges the oppression of the Swiss people by slaying the ruthless governor, the representative of the emperor of Austria. Tell's skill as a marksman is tested when he is ordered by the governor to shoot an apple off the head of his son at seventy paces. Arrested despite his obedience, Tell, in another feat of daring, escapes from the boat that carries him to imprisonment, gets his crossbow, and slays the evil governor, Gessler. Returning to his home, he finds a monk—actually a nobleman in disguise—in hiding because he has murdered the emperor. Removal of the heartless monarch and his brutal governor brings lasting freedom to the Swiss people.
Hermann Gessler (HUR-mahn GEHS-lehr), the governor of Uri and Switz, slain by Tell. Gessler, the youngest son of the emperor of Austria, sublimates his lack of status by subju-gating those under his rule. Undaunted in his mercilessness, he plunders, deceives, and slays.
Ulrich von Rudenz (EWL-reekh fon REW-dehnts), the nephew of the Free Noble of Switzerland. In the spirit of youthful change and the desire for status, he wishes to side with Austria. His contention that old regimes must pass to make way for the new is motivated by his love for a woman he thinks loyal to Austria. Learning his mistake about her loyalty, Ulrich gains the courage to ridicule the governor for his unreasonableness and to prove himself a gallant in defending his own people. He becomes the Baron, replacing his deceased uncle, and pronounces the Swiss free.
Bertha von Bruneck (BAYR-tah fon BREW-nak), a rich heiress. Her efforts to lighten the load of the mistreated people are at first misunderstood, the peasants crying that she would pay for injury with gold. She proves her humanitarianism, however, and takes Ulrich as her husband.
Werner Stauffacher (VEHR-nehr SHTOW-fah-kur), a citizen of the Canton of Switz. Lamenting the plight of the downtrodden people, he is spurred to action by his wife. He becomes the organizer of the forces of his canton for the conspiracy.
Walter Fürst (VAHL-tehr fewrst), a citizen of Uri, Tell's father-in-law. Reflecting the sageness of the mature, Fürst tempers the brashness of the young, who would rush headlong to avenge wrongdoing. He organizes the leaders of the three cantons for the conspiracy and serves as the leader of the Uri forces.
Arnold von Melchthal (MEHLKH-tahl), a citizen of Unterwald who slays a representative of the governor who attempts to take Melchthal's oxen. In reprisal, Melchthal's father is barbarously blinded by government order. The atrocity makes Melchthal the likely volunteer as confederacy leader, to mobilize the people of Unterwald.
Werner, Baron von Attinghausen (AHT-tihng-how-zehn), Ulrich's uncle. He is the venerable leader, and in his own goodness he is naïve about the malevolence of others. Despite his rude awakening to reality, his last words are prophetic of the peace to come to his people, and his final admonition, which guides the confederates in their ensuing battle for liberty, is for union among themselves.
Conrad Baumgarten (BOWM-gahr-tehn), a citizen of Unterwald whose escape is the first indication in the play of the government's evil treatment of the people. Baumgarten is fleeing because he has murdered a government agent for an attempted attack on Baumgarten's wife. Baumgarten serves willingly in the confederacy.
Rösselmann (ROOS-sehl-mahn), the priest of Uri, representing the church. He tries, for the sake of peace, to seek a compromise before rising in arms against the government. Seeing the heinous acts of the oppressors, the priest leads the confederates in swearing to death rather than to slavery. He pleads for aggression in defending themselves, rather than delay.
Walter, Tell's son. He displays his bravery when an apple is placed on his head as his father's target.
Hedwig (HEHD-vihg), Tell's wife and the daughter of Fürst. Hers is the plight of the warrior's wife, uncertainty and anxiety filling her days.
Gertrude (gehr-TREW-deh), Stauffacher's wife, who advocates action rather than lamenting if the people are to preserve their liberty.
Friesshardt (FREES-hahrt), a soldier and an attendant to Gessler. With bullying fervor, he binds Tell and drags him away at the governor's orders after the huntsman has shot the apple.
Armgart, a peasant woman. She detains Gessler and derides him for his abuse of the people, after he has been shot from a cliff by Tell.
Rudolph der Harras (HAH-ras), Gessler's master of horse. His declaration that he will carry on after Gessler's death portends further difficulty for the Swiss. His intentions are short-lived, however, when the government forces are disrupted.